“Autumn in New York is so lovely,” they said. “The colors of the leaves are so vibrant!”
Sure, sure they’re lovely when they’re still suspended from the branches. They’re vibrant when they first land on the ground. All those yellows and oranges and bright reds.
You’d get sick of them surprisingly quickly if all you could do was lie in a pile of the rotting things and stare at the sky with one eye and the ground at the other, for days at a time. Don’t believe me? Trust me, I know.
After all, that’s my life.
You all know the story, I’m sure. Mild-mannered school-teacher Ichabod Crane comes to Tarrytown to lead the charge for education, falls in love with Katrina, and has a series of run-ins with a Hessian on horseback, a soldier name of Brom Bones who lost his head – quite literally – by a single, spectacular, sword-stroke. Goes around now with some squash or gourd tucked under one arm.
Calls himself the Headless Horseman.
Makes a show of being all scary and magical.
Truth is, magic’s got nothing to do with it. It’s Daredevil that gets Ol’ Brom where he wants to go.
Daredevil… now that was a horse. Bred in Spain, brought him over to the colonies from Seville. He’d been trained by the same folks who taught the Lipizzan stallions all their cool tricks. Blind as a bat – blinder, really – Brom didn’t need a head to get around as long as he had that horse.
But I digress.
You all know the story of the Horseman, but did you ever stop to wonder what happened to his head?
It’s okay. I know how it is. Man riding around without a head – that’s a scary thing. Head rolling around without a man – that’s just unfortunate.
At least the grin without a cat was still welcome at tea.
Leaves. Leaves and mulch and dirt and worms. Rain, mud, snow, ice, grass, and leaves again. On and on through the wheel of time.
Wheels go round.
Heads go rolling.
The Horseman, he’s Brom Bones… he’s got the stories and the screams and the flickering firelight that makes the shadows shrink and grow.
Me? I’ve got a name too, you know.
I used to be Abraham von Brunt, but that’s a name that requires legs and arms. And a chest. And broad shoulders.
At this point?
Well, my hair is dirty and matted, my eyes are filled with grit and I cannot get the taste of old dirt and rotting leaves out of my mouth or nose.
Well, at least until the next rain.
I’ve managed to see a bit of the world, though.
Figured out that wiggling my ears and scrunching my nose could give me a bit of mobility.
Find the correct angle on the right ground, and heads will roll.
And every once in a while some kid who wants a disgusting keepsake will use a stick to shove me into a satchel, and carry me around for a bit. I don’t have vocal cords anymore, but I can project my voice into a willing person’s head, give them directions.
Or… suggestions, I guess.
I’ve given up any hope of reuniting with Brom.
My new goal is to make it back across the pond. Not to Austria or Germany, though.
Nope. I aim to make it to Scotland.
I’ve heard there are whole clans of Scotsmen lopping each other’s heads off like it’s some kind of Game.
Pretty sure one of those bodies could use a spare.
And if not?
One option is to become a willing participant in that other game – the one with the brooms and the ice.
Team could make a pretty penny if they had a stone that could Suggest that the opponents miss some shots.
And option two? That’s the one with less pain and more dignity.
See, the people of the Isles are closer to real magic than they are here in the Colonies. Maybe they can build me a strawman body, like the ones they prop up in fields to keep the pests at bay.
It’d have to be pretty well packed though… to bear the brunt of it all.
Jack kept his focus on the dressing room mirror as he smeared white makeup over the entirety of his face, ears and neck included. He used black make-up to draw on his eyebrows – large inverted V-shapes half-way up his forehead – and blue to color in the space underneath. More blue around his mouth, red inside the blue making his lips into a garish slash in the lower third of his face. Red dots on the apples of his cheeks, and the iconic red ball on his nose.
Clown faces were supposed to be living grotesques, animated faces in the funhouse mirrors, but Jack didn’t feel particularly animated that afternoon. He was exhausted from traveling on the circus train nine months a year, stop after stop where fewer and fewer people lined the streets to see the animals march from the train yards to the arena where they’d be performing. He was fatigued from doing show after show for dwindling crowds, for children who were more interested in watching videos on their smartphones than in the acrobatic and comedic feats he and his colleagues enacted every Wednesday through Sunday afternoon, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.
Now, instead of kids wanting to join the circus and live a life of travel and adventure, they were more likely to parrot their kale-eating, coconut water-drinking, hipster parents: Circuses are evil. Animal acts are cruel. Acrobats are anorexic. Tightrope walkers seek danger.
And clowns? Clowns aren’t happy-go-lucky jesters, they’re lewd men hiding behind gross caricatures of the human face.
Clowns lured mis-behaving children to their doom, they said.
They had sharp teeth and black souls, like that guy Tim Curry played in that old Stephen King miniseries.
They ate you, if you tried to run away.
None of that was actually true of course, but still, they played to fewer and fewer people in every city.
And more and more clowns came out of the rings with blue teardrops on their cheeks.
No one knew how the teardrops got there, but it happened with the younger clowns first, the kids who were new to the circuit, eager to put their juggling, tumbling, and mime skills to use. These kids didn’t come from the Clown College – that itself had closed over a decade before – not enough applicants to keep it open – but they had the bug – the drive – the need to entertain.
But when the crowds were thin, when the children screamed with fear instead of laughter at their antics, the blue teardrops appeared at the corners of their eyes, their faces were updated in the Registry, and they disappeared. Some said they were going back to college; others found jobs as buskers in zoos and amusement parks, but every single one left the Alley, left the life.
Jack hadn’t come up from clown college either, but he was no kid. At sixty, he probably ought to be thinking about retirement, but he’d been born and raised in the circus. He was the last in a line of clowns that dated back to the first American circus.
He was a headliner among clowns; his name – Jacko – was on all the posters.
“Hey, Boss, five minutes.” Carlos, the lead roustabout came into view in the mirror.
“How’s the crowd?”
“Quiet.” Carlos’s tone was grim. “Concession says they’ll be lucky to break even, and souvenirs are only running half the booths.”
“Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”
Jack pulled on his wig and hat, the last steps in his transformation into his Jacko persona, and went to join the other clowns for the opening parade.
The music began, and the ringmaster led the march out to the arena floor, circling through the three rings arranged in the center. The horses and dogs were next, then the acrobats and aerialists, the fire eaters and sword swallowers, and all the other performers, and finally, the clowns, twelve of them, tumbling and bobbing, racing into the stands and returning to formation.
Jacko stopped in front of a crying child, and knelt down to be at eye level with him. He pulled at the white handkerchief in his pocket, and offered it to the boy, who tugged and tugged, his tears finally turning to a smile, and then laughter as scarf after scarf came of the clown’s pocket.
He gave a big thumbs up to the boy and his mother, and made his way around the circle, honking the tin horn in his hand, and scattering colored streamers as he went.
Carlos had been right; the spectators were a quiet bunch, but Jacko managed to make some real connections with a few of the children.
The show went on.
The lights and sounds eventually faded into nothing, and the show lights turned off, replaced by normal fluorescent bulbs high in the arena ceiling.
The roustabouts were already dismantling the safety nets and trapeze rigging, loading sections of the rings onto the trucks that would carry them back to the train.
Two days later, just outside Cedar Springs, IA, Jack got the call on his cell phone, while he was resting in his compartment in the clown car. The tour was over budget and ticket sales were slumping. They’d close down at the end of the season, three months in the future.
In the last few minutes before the final performance, Jacko surveyed himself in the mirror. He’d had offers from Circus Vargas and Ringling Bros, but the life he’d loved for so long was no longer holding him so tightly. His children had fled the circus life decades before. His grandchildren seemed embarrassed that their grandad was a clown. It was time, he thought, to head back to the Florida condo he’d finally paid off the year before, but had barely spent any time in.
“Five minutes, Boss,” Carlos warned.
“How’s the crowd?”
“Sweet,” the roustabout answered.
Jacko smiled as he adjusted his hat. Sweet crowds were the best.
This time the crying child was a girl, and she finally cracked a smile after he gave her a flower that sprayed silly string from the center. She was about the same age as his youngest granddaughter, he thought.
He was about to leave her, to push himself up from his knees and rejoin the fracas in the ring, but the child reached out and touched his cheek, just below the corner of his left eye. “Why so sad, Clown?” she asked in her little-girl voice.
Jacko mimed a shrug, and then smiled broadly, and implied that he was sad because he had to leave her.
In reality, he was terrified – the little gir’s finger had come away with blue paint on it.
They took his new photo for the Registry the next morning, but Jacko never looked at it, and when the circus left Cedar Springs, the number of clowns in the Alley had dwindled to eleven.
Six months later, Jack hosted Christmas for his family, all of them, but it was only Anissa, his youngest granddaughter who climbed into his lap and touched his cheek, right below the corner of his eye. “Sad Granddad,” she said. “Why blue teardrops?”
He hadn’t worn clown paint since June, but somehow, when the little girl’s finger came away stained blue, he wasn’t surprised.
Someday, he might have an answer the child would understand.
As I’ve been working on HorrorDailies, many of my friends have been incredibly helpful with inspiration and suggestions, some solicited, some not. I’ve been under the weather the past couple of days, so while I have ideas… simmering… I haven’t managed to finish anything. My good friend Fran Hutchinson made a suggestion that I felt would be better served if she wrote it. And so she did, and I’m pleased to present it here.
Vlad settled into his satin-lined coffin with a sigh of contentment. A full feed always made him sleepy, so he left them until shortly before sunrise. His wife followed right behind him, lying in her adjacent, more ornate coffin in preparation for a good day’s rest.
“Rest well, my love,” he whispered. After two hundred and fifty years, some habits would never be broken. Except this time… no reply.
“Elvira? My love, I said ‘rest well.'” The customary reply, “And you, my dearest.” was not forthcoming. The silence was so jarring, so… disruptive… he could not let it remain. He sat up in his casket, gazing at the immobile face of his wife. “Dear? What is wrong?”
She sat up to face him angrily.
“Is it too much to ask,” she hissed, “that after you drain the last captive you do not put him back in the dungeon?”
Much chastened, he rose to go and dispose of the body in question.
“I really try to remember,” he muttered.
“Well, try harder. And don’t forget to put the lights out before you repose.”
Kat knew what he was the moment he walked into her pub.
It wasn’t anything obvious. His clothes were ordinary – no sign of a cape or decades out-of-date ruffles and lace. His skin wasn’t particularly pale. His soft brown hair held no sign of a widow’s peak.
And yet, there was something about the way he carried himself, moving through the throng of peak-time drinkers without coming into contact with a single one of them that made it clear he was something special… something other.
The crowd parted as he approached the brass rail.
Jake, one of the regulars, put a protective arm around the shoulders of his young (legal – but barely – she’d been carded) blonde date. The pretty redhead on his other side glanced at the newcomer, shivered slightly, and slid off her stool. Kat saw her absently finger her neck as she disappeared, heading toward the restrooms. Please be here with a friend, she thought.
The stranger took the vacated seat at the center of the bar, and fixed his brown eyes on her face. (Points for that. Most of them – the ones that preferred women, anyway – got stuck on the jugular, if they made it past the tits.)
Kat found herself drawn into those eyes. They weren’t the deep brown of black coffee, but warmer, like bittersweet chocolate. And his lashes. Most women would kill for lashes like his – long, thick – if he was old enough to be a day-walker, those lashes would make the sunglasses that were de rigueur among his kind pretty uncomfortable.
Still, to the untrained eye, nothing about him screamed bloodsucker. Sure, there was the inevitable sense of unease about him, but lots of paranormals caused that. Kat knew that this stranger, this man, was a vampire because of his lips.
“They all do it,” she’d explained to one of her bar backs a few weeks before. “Man, woman, doesn’t matter. They do that thing with their lips – as if they have to consciously hide their fangs.”
It wasn’t all that different from the way teenagers used to try and hide their braces, Kat reflected. They made their mouths a little wider, a little tighter at the corners. They did something with the upper lip to provide more… space.
And this guy. This guy had the perfect lips for one of his kind. They were the textbook soft M-shape. They were dusky pink but not so dark that you’d think he’d just fed. The top one held a hint of felinity. The bottom one was full, luscious. Even better, he had just the right amount of dark brown facial hair – more than a five o’clock shadow, less than a full beard – to accent that mouth.
Yeah, Kat thought, licking her own lips, definitely vampire. And a completely kissable one at that.
She’d dated vamps before of course. It was inevitable in her line of work. They kept the same hours, frequented the same spots. It was only natural.
It was also dangerous, which was why she didn’t do it often, and had established her own sharps precautions: Always take them to a hotel, never their place, and never, ever, your own place. Never let them pay. Never drink anything that isn’t clear – even a drop of their blood could put you in thrall. And the one rule that some women, she knew, found difficult: under no circumstances did you allow a vampire lover to be on top, at least, not unless you were into being a pin cushion.
“… you have my vintage?”
Kat shook herself out of her reverie. “Come again?” she asked, as if the noise was what had kept her from earing his question.
His cheeks dimpled slightly and he repeated his query in a voice that wrapped around her like velvet. Chocolate velvet. Bittersweet chocolate velvet. “I asked if you were Kat, and if you have my vintage?”
She quirked a flirtatious eyebrow at him. “Freshly corked.” She reached below the bar for a deep green bottle with no label, “Water, wine or…?”
“Neat,” he said. “Please.”
She nodded and poured the slightly viscous red liquid into a stemmed glass. To the casual observer, he’d be drinking red wine.
He lingered there until last call. Kat could tell that he was not only watching her, but also watching her watch him.
Between customers they chatted, doing the verbal dance that meant they’d likely be leaving together after last call. If Kat pegged him right – and she always pegged them right – he’d make a purposefully nonchalant invitation after the last employee disappeared out the back door.
He did, and she accepted.
The night air was damp and chilly as they left the pub. Invigorating. Walking next to him, she realized her head just crested the top of his shoulder. Perfect.
“My car’s over there,” she told him, indicating the parking lot across the street.
“I came on my own,” he said. It was the euphemism his kind always used when they’d flown or fogged from place to place.
“No problem,” she said. “I like to drive.”
She took him to a discreet boutique hotel that was halfway between the pub and her apartment. The night manager recognized her and handed over the key to her preferred suite.
In the elevator, she handed him a breath mint, which he popped into his mouth without question or pause.
There was no talking. She reached for the lapels of his leather bomber jacket at the same time he caught her by the waist.
Kissable, she thought. So very kissable.
His warm brown eyes glittered in the softly-lit room. “I know you’re called Kat,” he said, staring down at her. His dimples had come out to play again. “My name is – ”
“Shh.” She cut him off first with a finger, and then with her mouth against his. God, his mouth was exquisite. He tasted of wintergreen and danger, the faint tang of blood barely detectable. When, finally, she had to breathe, she favored him with another of her eyebrow quirks. “I’ll just call you Lips.”
“Dance me, Pop-Pop,” I beg, wrapping my whole hand around just one of his thick, calloused fingers.
“Aren’t you getting too big for this, sweetheart?” he teases, but I know he doesn’t really mean it.
I shake my head, my golden-brown braids whipping back and forth, “Never,” I answer, followed by “Please?” Being winsome has always been a special talent of mine, and as a five-year-old, I’m at my peak.
“Alright,” he says, and he envelops each of my hands in one of his, and helps me balance while I place one of my bare feet on top of each of his sturdy shoes.
I love his shoes. His work shoes, he calls them. I know he has shiny wing-tips for when we go to Sunday brunch at the officers’ club, but his every-day shoes are made of brown leather and have thick soles, and sometimes Grandmom has to remind him not to track dirt all over her clean floor.
(He always answers her with the words “Yes, dear,” half-spoken and half-sung, and she can tell he’s not really listening, and when she swipes at him with a dish towel and scowls at him, we all know she’s really saying “I love you.”)
While we dance, he hums a waltz that is as familiar to me as the way the purple striped cotton sheets feel against my sun-tanned skin when I slide into bed after my bath at night. I don’t know its name.
“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he tells me, as we sway in circles around the dining room.
“I love you, Grandpop,” I reply.
Hours later, when I’m playing with blocks underneath the baby grand piano, and I stand up too quickly and bang my head, my grandfather is there, gathering me into his arms and drying my tears with a white cotton handkerchief.
He holds me in his lap and hums the waltz, then, too.
* * *
“Dance with me?” I ask.
My grandfather wrinkles his unruly eyebrows. “You don’t want to dance with your old Grandpop,” he protests, but he doesn’t really mean it.
It’s my sweet sixteen, and he’s rented the hall at the officers’ club for my party. My mother and grandmother are across the room, pretending not to watch us, and my father – well, he’s never been part of the equation.
“Yes, I do,” I insist, and I really do mean it.
“Alright,” he agrees and heaves himself out of the captain’s chair he’d claimed hours before. I glimpse the folded newspaper with the crossword puzzle hidden under his empty dinner plate, and I grin, but I don’t betray his secret.
The DJ pauses the endless list of pop songs to play the waltz I’d requested earlier in the night. Apparently it’s a standard tune for father-daughter dances, but I still don’t know the title of the tune.
I don’t ride on my grandfather’s feet any more. Instead, I follow his lead as we swirl in a graceful circle, and I smile when I hear him humming along with the song.
When the music ends, he strokes my hair. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he whispers.
My answer is a gentle kiss to his whiskery cheek, just after I breathe into his ear, “The answer to fifteen down is ‘zephyr.'”
* * *
“Got enough energy for one more dance, Grandpop?” I ask at the party to celebrate my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. He’s danced with Grandmom and my mother, my aunts, and all my cousins, but I want to be last.
“I think I can manage one more,” he says.
The waltz – our waltz – is slow enough that he can manage it, but his steps falter, and I have to take the lead. To his credit, he allows it, and if there’s any sense of indignity, he never lets it show.
When the music stops, he kisses me on the forehead. “You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice still strong inside a weakening body.
The old endearment makes me misty, and I bury my face in his lapel. He smells the way he always has: Ivory soap and Aqua Velva, and somehow it seems vitally important that I memorize his scent.
* * *
At his funeral, I watch my mother and my aunts go to the coffin and stroke my grandfather’s silvery hair, but even though the body lying there in state looks like him, his essence has long since left.
I hold my fiancé’s hand so tightly that he loses feeling in it, but he doesn’t complain. Instead, he pries my fingers loose and wraps his arm around me, holding me close and offering me a cloth handkerchief.
Sometimes I think I fell in love with him because of those cloth handkerchiefs. I’m half convinced he and my grandfather are the only men who still use them.
Used, I correct my own thoughts. Used. My fiancé uses hankies, but my grandfather used them.
Back at the house, after, while everyone is exchanging memories and trading stories, I slip away from the group and go into my grandfather’s den. I curl up in his ancient leather chair and fiddle with the photo-cube on his desk.
The invitation to my wedding is pinned to his cork board, along with the photo of my fiancé and me standing in his garden – my proposal had come as the love of my life and I were helping my grandfather pick tomatoes.
The old man had helped set it up – arranging things so I’d find the ring box tucked in against the fragrant vines.
I open the drawer where I know he stashed those tins of hard candies – lemon, usually, but sometimes coffee flavored – and find a wrapped package with my name on it. I know I should wait, but it seems like he wanted me to find it, so I tear the tissue paper apart.
It’s a CD. The track listing has one tune circled in black sharpie, and I don’t even have to put the disc in the player to know it’s our waltz. For the first time, I learn the title, and I have to smile through my tears.
It’s called The Ghost Waltz.
I play it obsessively for the next six days, until I, too, know it well enough to hum every note. Then I pack the disc away until I need it again.
Mom and Grandmom look worried, but my partner understands.
* * *
It’s the night before my wedding and there’s a full moon shining brightly over the officers’ club. The base is closed now, and the facility has been turned into a hotel and event center, but the owners are long-time friends of my family, and they’ve made sure our group is the only one in residence.
My almost-husband is asleep in a bed so tall I have to use a step-stool to climb in it (we’ve been living together for over a year, so sleeping apart seems silly and contrived) and I know I should be sleeping, too, but I can’t get my grandfather’s waltz out of my head.
I’d wanted him to be at my wedding.
I’d wanted him to dance that waltz with me.
I slip into my wedding dress and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I’m in my twenties now, but I swear I still see the echo of five-year-old me in the oval glass.
Maybe it’s the song in my head, or maybe it’s the moonlight, but I leave our suite and padd barefoot down the grand staircase to the main ballroom.
There’s a figure waiting in the center of the parquet dance floor, and my breath catches in my throat, because the perfect posture and slight paunch could only belong to one person.
As I approach, the moon shifts, and the figure solidifies. He’s wearing a tuxedo, but his work shoes are on his feet.
“Dance me, Pop-Pop?” I demand, using the words of my child-self.
His calloused hands wrap around mine, and he helps me balance one of my bare feet on each of his shoes.
We hum the waltz together as he spins me around the room, and when we get to the end, and my feet are on the ground again, he pulls me close for a hug that smells faintly of Aqua Velva and Ivory soap.
“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice rough and ethereal at once.
“Always,” I respond.
The clouds cover the moon and I am left alone in the darkened room, surrounded by bunting in my wedding colors.
I sink to my knees and start to cry, and suddenly I’m in bed and my fiancé is soothing me in hushed tones that turn first to soft caresses and then to kisses, until, in the first hours of our wedding day, we are making tender love on the soft white sheets.
* * *
Hours later, it’s time for our first dance as a married couple and my husband – my husband – takes the MC’s microphone, and makes an announcement.
“For most of her life,” he says, “my wife had another man in her life: her grandfather. He was her mentor and teacher and best friend. She was his sidekick and student and princess. They shared a song that they used to dance to. Last week, I found a CD on my desk with a track marked in sharpie and a post-it note instructing me to ‘dance to this when you marry her.’ Well, I’ve married her – or more accurately, she’s married me, and now we’re going to dance.”
He returns the mic to its rightful owner and returns to my side. “I love you,” he tells me.
The music starts, and I’m immediately touched and teary, resting my head against my husband’s chest (he smells like cashews and fresh apples) while we dance, and when I start to hum along, he surprised me by doing the same.
What’s the song? You ask.
Isn’t it obvious?
It’s The Ghost Waltz.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the song “The Ghost Waltz,” by Fats Kaplin, which I stumbled across quite by accident on Friday night. Play the video below to hear it.
I’m dealing with some severe autoimmune issues this autumn, some of which mean I have either no brain or no energy to write on any given day. That’s been the case for a good chunk of the week, but yesterday, I didn’t write because I spent half the day stitching three of the stories I’ve already written and posted into an episode of my podcast.
If you want to hear my friends and me doing audio interpretation of “The Rules,” “The Lady of La Paz,” or “Egaeus’s Protege,” please click through to:
SVM, blonde/blue seeks Type O. I’m experienced; you’re not. Rh+ OK. I never drink… wine, but I’ll open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for the right woman. 21+ No smoking or cats.
In the old days, hookups were a lot simpler, a lot more discrete. We’d just put a few lines in the appropriate category of the Personals section of the local underground newspaper.
It was effective, to a point. At least until the early 90s. But newspapers don’t vet the people who read the Personals. (For that matter, they don’t vet the people who place them, either. If the credit card works, the ad goes in.)
Why does that matter? Because virgin blood isn’t just the sweetest thing that could ever land on an undead tongue, it’s also got this special kick that lets you enjoy a sunrise right after you’ve imbibed. Sure, some vamps claim you’ll still burn; you just won’t care, but I’ve experienced it myself.
Good evening… I’m Sergei, and I want to give you the last love bite you’ll ever remember. I enjoy moonlight walks on the beach, gazing up at the stars, and sleeping on black satin sheets. You are voluptuous, dark haired, dark eyed, and have never given up your most precious gift. I am an old-world gentleman, castle included. Let us meet and see if your blood sings to mine.
As the internet grew in popularity, we went online, in much the same way the living did. Pictures were challenging at first – conventional cameras still used silver nitrate, which meant no permanent images, but when photography went digital all bets were off.
Video dating was more difficult for us. The average bicentennarian hasn’t had a lot of on-camera experience, and you can’t really hold your vic – uh – partner in thrall over Skype. Those of us who have lived beyond two hundred soon realized we needed our own network, and Fangbook was launched in the mid 2000’s just to help.
You’d be surprised at the number of living men and women who fantasize about feeding a vampire’s bloodlust. Or maybe you wouldn’t.
Lucas (223, Musician). Don’t B♯. Don’t B♭. Just B♮. And if you happen to be B- swipe right. We’ll make beautiful music together.
Technology, of course, brings constant change, even for vampires. These days we have a smartphone app called Biter. Vampires seeking willing donors or longer term companionship can post their profiles, and so can living humans who are looking to experience a whole new level of ‘necking.’
We’re even developing an enhancement to Apple’s health app that will verify blood type with the press of a thumb on a portable dongle.
As for me? I’m still rather old-school. Underground papers may not be the fastest, shiniest method of finding a date, but the QR code I run with my ads lets potential hook-ups get to know the real me, beyond the two-line blurb.
SVM, blonde/blue ISO virgin female for a night of firsts. You don’t have to be O-neg to have a positively howling time with me. Must love wolves.
I’m cheating a little with this post, because I’m really just providing an excerpt to this month’s Sunday Brunch column over at Modern Creative Life.
Here’s the excerpt:
A bottle of Clinique make-up, left in the medicine cabinet in my guest bathroom, smells like clay, but it also smells like Halloween, 1976, when my mother costumed me as Pocahontas and used her normal color to darken my fairer skin. (Cultural appropriation wasn’t a hot topic, back then, but even if it had been, my costume was an homage, not a mockery.)
Forty years later, that scent is so closely associated with my mother that when I see her and she no longer carries that aroma (because she’s long since changed her make-up routine), I have to stop and remind myself that she’s the same woman who bore me, raised me, and whose opinion is still, always, vitally important.
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor
Open the door and let ’em in
I am nine years old and in the fourth grade, and I am already on my way to becoming nocturnal, but it’s not because I’m afraid of the dark and try to wait for dawn before I sleep (that comes later, and only infrequently).
No, it’s because I have a vivid imagination and a mind like a steel trap (my mother says) and I remember things at the most inconvenient times.
For example, two years ago, I was on this kick where I was reading a lot of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, and even though none of them were particularly scary, there was this one line that made me afraid of my own bedroom. “Frank! Look! The room has no floor!”
The truth was that the house they were investigating had a room where the whole floor was an elevator, and so all the furniture was bolted to the walls. Not a problem, except that in our apartment above my mother’s store, my desk was built in, and my carpet was blood red, and at night I couldn’t see the floor.
I am only seven, so it doesn’t occur to me that my bed and nightstand are not bolted to the floor, so I make a point of leaving socks and things in a trail from the bedroom door to the bathroom door. Just in case.
Sister Suzie, brother John
Martin Luther, Phil and Don
Brother Michael, auntie Gin
Open the door and let ’em in, yeah
I am ten years old and the show PM Magazine, the one with Chef Tell, is running a show about how Paul McCartney is really dead, and if you play the Beatles’ records backwards there are all these codes and stuff recorded in the layers of the tracks, and he was barefoot on that one album cover, and the license plate on the car said 28 IF.
My mother insists that Paul McCartney isn’t really dead, or a ghost, or whatever, that he’s really just hiding in some other country (Japan? I think? Or Australia??) because of drugs, and he’s got this band called Wings.
I want to believe her, but I don’t want to believe her because the spooky story is fun.
But late at night when I can’t sleep, especially if my mother and her husband have been fighting, I turn on my white clock-radio – my first grown-up radio – and listen to the pop station, and while I kind of like it when Eddie Rabbitt sings “I Love a Rainy Night,” when Paul McCartney and Wings sing “Let ’em In,” the scratchy part of his voice makes me not want to turn out the light or go to sleep.
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
I am sixteen, and I hate going to sleep, because I can’t avoid nightmares, even though I have nothing, really, to be stressed about. I’ve given up listening to music to help me sleep, because it doesn’t, and switched to talk radio. My usual MO is to keep the volume super-low so that I have to strain to hear it, and the act of straining makes me tired and I fall asleep.
But lately I’ve become hooked on the Larry King radio show, and tonight Robert Englund, who plays Freddy Krueger, is on his show and when people call in he talks to them in Freddy’s voice. I want to sneak out of my room and call in, but the hallway is dark and my parents are sleeping, and bed is safe, right?
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
I am thirty-eight years old, and I’m home alone with my two dogs, Zorro and Miss Cleo, because Fuzzy is on a business trip in Florida. Two days before, the first stick showed a pink plus sign and the second one blinked “pregnant” at me, and I freaked out a little, but I was so happy. But earlier tonight I started cramping and spotting, and I called my friend Kathy to come hang out with me – she and Scott both came and made me laugh and distracted me.
Fuzzy will be home late in the morning, and we’ll go to the doctor, but right now, I’m alone and I’m scared I’ve miscarried and equally frightened that I didn’t, and just as I’m falling asleep, Miss Cleo growls at nothing. I’m pretty sure she’s dreaming, but she sleeps with her eyes open, so I’m never sure.
(I did miscarry.)
Do me a favor
Open the door and let ’em in
I am forty-six years old, but I’m also still seven and nine and ten and sixteen and thirty-eight, and there are nights when, even though my husband is sleeping peacefully beside me, and our dogs (different dogs now: Perry, Max, Teddy, and Piper) are also sleeping, that I can’t fall asleep because I keep falling into nightmares, so I read on my kindle and wait for dawn.
Or I wake up Fuzzy, because I’m terrified of something I dreamed, even though I don’t remember what it was, and he holds me until I’m calm, and understands that I can’t talk about it until the magic of morning takes it all away.
And in the back of my head, that creepy Paul McCartney song is always playing.
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor
When Joe had finally agreed to spend the first weeks of his retirement remodeling their house, he’d assumed that Molly meant redoing the kitchen, adding the island she’d always wanted, and increasing the cabinet space. He’d never expected that he’d be renting heavy equipment and hiring contractors to demolish the garage in order to expand it and add a second story with mother-in-law quarters.
He’d never expected that he’d be working with the guys he’d hired to haul away chunks of the cement that had formerly been the garage floor, or dig out a new basement.
He’d certainly never expected to find a small, sealed coffin under the layers of mud and sand and concrete.
A coffin that still held a body.
Actually, it reminded him of that fairy-tale his daughter had loved when she was younger. The one about the girl in the glass casket. The one who wakes up when the prince kisses her.
Except this coffin wasn’t made of glass. Instead, it was formed from lead and bronze, with a pair of diamond-shaped glass windows set into the top. And it was old. Decades at least. Maybe centuries.
Except this girl, the one inside the box, wasn’t an adolescent on the cusp of womanhood. Rather the pale face he saw centered in the top window, the one framed by jet-black curls adorned with a bit of lace, was cherub-cheeked and babyish, and he didn’t think she’d been a day over three when she died.
Funny, she didn’t look dead.
She looked for all the world as though she’d just been tucked in for an afternoon nap, the dark eyelashes of her closed eyes resting against the soft skin of those adorable cheeks. Those pinch-able cheeks.
“You have such fat, pink, cheeks, Gracie. I’m going to eat you up!” Joe bounced his five-year-old daughter on his knee, laughing with the child as she giggled. “I’m going to stuff an apple in your mouth, and roast you in the oven,” he teased.
Gracie howled with little-girl laughter, understanding that her father was only teasing, and demanding to know, “What else are you gonna do to me, Daddy?”
“I’m going to wrap you up so tight…” This was their bedtime routine. Molly was in charge of bath time and pajamas, but Joe handled Storytime and tucking in.
But Gracie wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was twenty, off studying at Tulane, with father-daughter bedtime stories far behind her.
Still, Joe thought, his own daughter had once looked just like this child when she was sleeping. Peaceful. Innocent. A little girl taking her afternoon nap.
Only the white rose clutched in her tiny fist told a different story. The white rose and the nameplate on the foot of the box. He reached out with a gloved hand to rub the grime away: Edith, it read. No last name.
He stared down at the girl under glass for a few more minutes, before he realized that the sun had gone down, and the men he’d found waiting outside Home Depot at six AM on Tuesday, the same men who had found their own ride out to his place for the two days since, had already jumped in their truck and gone home.
He really ought to call someone.
He really shouldn’t just leave her there, in the open. What if some kid wandered in? What would the neighbors think?
Joe left the place that used to be his garage, and went to grab a tarp from the back of his Jeep, noticing that Molly’s Prius wasn’t in the driveway. He wondered where she – oh, right – it was Thursday. She taught at the adult school on Thursdays. She’d left a lasagna out to defrost… he was supposed to start it in time for dinner. Funny how physical labor made you forget stuff like that.
He was about to swing the canvas cloth over the coffin when he caught sight of her face, found her fathomless black eyes staring at him from under the glass.
Wait a second. Hadn’t they been closed before?
Joe dropped the tarp over the casket and retreated from the remnants of his garage. The back of his neck had that cold, prickly feeling, and it was pretty dark out. Better to get inside, start dinner so it’d be ready when Molly got home, and figure out who you call to report a dead child in a coffin under your garage floor.
Was that something you dialed 9-1-1 for?
* * *
Friday morning rolled in with a violent rainstorm, which meant no work on the garage, but while Molly was upset about the delay, Joe was relieved. He hadn’t told her about the coffin. His wife was prone to having nightmares, and he didn’t want to be the cause of another sleepless night.
He’d waited until she left for work, and then he’d called the emergency line after all, because, really, who else would know what to do?
“Sir, this isn’t funny,” the operator informed him. “We have a major storm causing flooding at all the low-lying intersections, and can’t afford to waste time on pranksters.”
“I’m not a prankster,” Joe had insisted, and either she had sensed the anguish in his voice, or she had a friend she wished to twit, because she’d referred him to the county coroner instructing him to ‘ask for Charlie.’
It turned out that Charlie was actually Charlene, and she was also convinced it was some kind of a joke. Joe had gone out to the garage with his smartphone and snapped some pictures, texting them to the cell number she’d provided.
Two hours later, the coroner’s van arrived and a redheaded woman who appeared to be in her early fifties joined Joe in the torn-down garage, flanked by a ferret-faced man who said he was Jasper from the historical society, and a woman in a conservative skirt and veil, the contemporary habit of a nun, who said she was from the Sisters of Innocence and explained that her organization would handle the burial at no charge.
“Mr. Hunter,” the coroner greeted him. ” I’m Charlie. We spoke on the phone. I’m so sorry; this must have been quite upsetting for you.”
“It was definitely a surprise,” he replied, affably enough. “My wife doesn’t know.”
“I’m not surprised you found a coffin,” the historical society rep interrupted. “From the photos you sent, yours is about a hundred and fifty years old… this whole area was a cemetery then. The bodies were relocated around the turn of the century, though… ground’s too wet… coffins kept floating to the surface.”
Joe had no way to respond to that, so he ignored it, except to say, “It’s not mine.” And then, “It’s here… under the tarp.”
But Jasper continued. “She clearly came from a wealthy family. Lead. Bronze. Glass. This thing was built to last.”
Joe turned his back to Jasper.
Charlie did the honors, removing the drape, and the three adults all looked into the window at the still, small, form inside. Her eyes were closed again (or was it ‘still?’) Joe saw, but her mouth looked a little different – the lips seemed redder and plumper – or maybe he was just imagining things.
“Alright,” the coroner said. “Jasper, if you’ll give me a hand moving her, we’ll get going. I think Sister Celeste has some paperwork for you to do, sir.”
The nun had been murmuring a prayer over the casket, and she took a moment to gaze through the window before allowing Joe to direct her toward the house. “Such a beautiful child. So well preserved…”
“It’s because the coffin’s sealed” Jasper said. “No air, no deterioration.”
Joe decided he didn’t care much for Jasper.
* * *
Joe Hunter had never been a great cook, but he figured if he was going to tell his wife what had been removed from where the garage used to be, he’d better ply her with food and drink first. The morning’s rain had left a clear, crisp, night in its wake. Chilly, but not too cold for barbecue. He had a pitcher of margaritas mixed and the steaks ready to go on the grill as soon as Molly arrived home.
The cold pricklies came back at about the same time his phone rang. Charlie from the coroner’s office calling to tell him that something had happened.
“Happened?” Joe had no idea why she was calling him.
“When we got to the morgue… when we opened the casket… the child… she was gone.”
Joe had no idea what to say, but it didn’t matter, because Molly walked in just then, carrying a white rose and smiling like she had on their last anniversary when he’d given her that string of real pearls.
“Do I smell charcoal?” she asked, and lifted her face to his for a kiss.
“Yeah,” he said. “I thought… we won’t have many more nights warm enough.” He thumbed the phone to an inactive state and set it down on the counter, face down. “Margarita?”
They ate and laughed, and he finally told her about the coffin and showed her the pictures. “It almost looks like her eyes are open in this one,” Molly observed.
Joe agreed that it really did.
They went to bed early, but they didn’t go to sleep because Molly was reading a chapter of some novel on her Kindle and he was using his iPad to send an email to Gracie. “Come home for Thanksgiving break,” he requested. “Your mother and I both miss you.”
Around midnight, after Molly had turned off her light and rolled on her side to sleep, Joe got up to check the house. It was his ritual, one his father had performed long ago. Make sure all the doors are locked, prep the coffee-maker for the morning. Hit the bathroom one more time.
He was passing Gracie’s room on his way back to bed when he heard it. Soft, so soft it was quieter than a dream, a lick of childish laughter.
The kind of laughter a three-year-old might produce.
Notes: I’ve had the concept of “Under Glass” in my head for years. When I went looking for art to accompany this story, however, I stumbled upon a true story about a coffin that was found under the floor of a garage in San Francisco, in the Lone Mountain neighborhood. I know the area because I had classes in the Lone Mountain campus of University of San Francisco, once upon a time. Here’s the link to the actual story: Little Girl Found in Coffin